Washington should have interest in V.C. Summer project, says nuclear engineering program head

Rising costs, inexperience and design flaws hampered the now-shuttered construction of two nuclear reactors in Jenkinsville, a rural town located about 30 miles northwest of Columbia. 

Construction on the second and third reactors at Virgil C. Summer Nuclear Generating Station began in 2013, marking the first new construction of a nuclear reactor in the United States in three decades. Though the reactors were expected to be on line in 2017 and 2018, numerous delays and decision to abandon construction led to the project’s cancellation last week.

Travis Knight, a professor and program director at USC’s College of Engineering and Computing, sat down with The Daily Gamecock to give an insight into what hampered the project’s tortured history and what will have to be done to move it forward. Knight completed all three of his degrees at the University of Florida and worked at Oak Ridge Nuclear Plant in Louisiana and a pair of Department of Energy National Laboratories before coming to Columbia in 2004. He was named USC’s nuclear engineering graduate program in the summer of 2011.

Over the phone Tuesday, Knight said the multi-billion-dollar project’s scheduling and delays in the fabrication, installation and quality assurance of the plant’s components were the “root cause” of its downfall.

"This is something that a first-of-a-kind engineering project might experience, and that’s why I guess there are contigencies built into contracts,” Knight said.

The V.C. Summer plant's second and third units indeed have been first of a kind. Both AP-1000 model reactors designed by Westinghouse Electric Company, the two planned for Jenkinsville would have represented two of the first Generation III reactors on American soil. As the name suggests, Generation III reactors include safety features and simplified designs separating them from Generation II, which is considered to have ended in the late 1990s.

Westinghouse filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in March, leaving future AP1000 projects in doubt. At the time it declared bankruptcy, Westinghouse was also preparing two AP1000 units at Vogtle nuclear plant in Waynesboro, Georgia. According to Knight, those units are to be reviewed for commission in late August.

A previous delay, which Knight emphasized was not a major factor, came from an unexpected redesign. According to Knight, concerns were raised in the aftermath of 9/11 about the possibility of aircrafts intentionally impacting nuclear power plants.

Even though the AP1000 design had already been completed and approved in 2005, Westinghouse commissioned a new plan to cover the concrete walls of the plant in steel plates.

“I don’t think that was the most significant factor here, but without a doubt, it did delay the final design’s approval,” Knight said.

The most obvious resource the project will need to resume, Knight said, is investors.

“If you lose your partner, as [SCE&G] did, you kind of leave them between a rock and a hard place,” Knight said.

Financially, a restart could be difficult. When SCANA announced it was ceasing construction on July 31, the company petitioned Public Service Commission of South Carolina to abandon the project. Based in Cayce, SCANA held a 55 percent stake in the project.

According to Bloomberg News, state power authority Santee Cooper, which held the remaining 45 percent stake, claimed shuttering the project would save customers $7 billion.

Both announcements came shortly after Tokyo-based Toshiba Corporation, parent company of Westinghouse, promised to pay $2.2 billion to SCANA and Santee Cooper whether the reactors were finished or not.

Meanwhile, residents of Fairfield County, in which Jenkinsville resides, absorbed much of the blow behind the plant’s abandonment. The State reported Sunday that about 730 county residents lost their jobs in the weeks before and after SCANA’s July 31 announcement. 500 of those left unemployed worked on the reactor’s construction site. Located directly north of Richland County, Fairfield County has about 22,000 residents.

But Knight is hopeful that the project gains new footing. One potential investor he sees is the federal government, which he believes should have an interest in seeing a Generation III reactor built at a time when other nations are beginning shift away from the use of fossil fuels for energy. And once the U.S. builds one plant, Knight said, building more should become easier with experience.

“China’s building a few of everything nuclear,” Knight said. “Having a robust industry where you’re getting orders on a regular basis, and you’re keeping workers in the field, engaged . . . there’s a benefit that is passed on to the next plant when you build it. So the first one, there’s some learning that’s involved, that can be passed on to the future plants.”

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